Well, you have to begin sometime. I think you’ll need practice in order for it to look real. I’m sorry to do this. I know you’ve been homeschooled and I bet this is your first kiss. Isn’t it?
Yes, I nodded in disbelief at my beloved drama teacher.
Homeschooling comes with some well-earned stereotyping for the most part, but I didn’t start until high school.
We don’t like you. We don’t like the person you are turning out to be. You can learn at home. We just really want to like you again.
I stood there then in sobbing protest to my hippie, Jesus-loving parents and they just nodded and smiled as I ran into the woods to yell at God for a while for the unfairness of the world and for making me strong-willed in the first place.
He didn’t respond, and if He did it was probably just a smile and a nod. I pleaded to be a PART of something at school and they conceded to drama.
The after school club was run by an outstanding and fearless tiny woman with short, raven hair who lived to make kids shine on stage. She must have seen something in me, or at the very least just seen me and she took pity on the poor homeschooled and let me into the huge crew.
In those days the school I went to at 2pm each day was spending more on their theater program than football, and some of the linebackers came to dance rehearsals in pads so they wouldn’t miss out. It was a great time to be in theater.
Auditions were always daunting, and the first year, as a measly freshman, I scored a chorus role in Guys & Dolls. No one noticed that I kept raising my hand to volunteer for walk-on parts. I ended up with 8 rolls and 9 costume changes. They hung in the back hallway closet in Thriftway bags, and I’d swim through those bags between scenes to change there in the hallway since freshmen weren’t allowed in any of the dressing rooms. I think the seniors made the rule. It was tough to keep it all straight. I was a guy, a doll, a stripper, a pickpocket, and Nicely Nicely’s girlfriend, to name a few. I loved it. I didn’t even mind the time in the Havana scene when the kid who played Big Jule hauled in and cold cocked the main character, Sky Masterson who fell into me. I landed on a plywood table that cut me all the way up my arm. I didn’t mind because that was my first individual interaction with the director. She came back to the green room to see if we were all right. She saw me dripping blood and tried to hide her shock. She pulled me into the wings and wrapped my arm all the way up with gauze and said, “It will be all right. Don’t you love it? It’s a war wound!”
She was right. A well-earned wound, and she helped me change for the next scene. I was a Hot Box dancer and I’d have to take off half of the costume during the song, but I remember the gauze slipping down along with the gloves and dropping in a messy heap while I danced on…
The next year, I couldn’t believe I got the lead role in Oklahoma. There on stage, we had a real live surrey with a fringe, the wind from the backdrops came sweeping through the painted plains along the back flats, and just there, I had my first kiss. I probably shouldn’t count it. I was so afraid of the towering senior boy I played opposite. His stage name was Curley, but his hair was stringy and long and wafted of old cigarettes and hairspray he didn’t use. His girlfriend sat in the auditorium, like a Hitchcock character in the dark waiting to cut me for standing too close to her property.
I didn’t tell my dad about my one interaction with her when she said she would kill me if I got too close to her man. He must have sensed it because a few days later he joined the pit band to play his guitar. I didn’t think a pit band even called for a guitar, but he played anyway. They liked him. He smiled a lot and cracked jokes that were customized for musicians.
That didn’t look real! Try it again! Tip your head this time. You’re supposed to look like you’re in love. You both look like you’re in pain.
Maybe we were in pain. The director told us this was the day and she had us get into costume and practice the scene in the green room in front of the other leads. Then they got to comment and critique our kiss. That poor boy had to lean so far over to reach my face and I had to tip toe to reach up to his shoulders. I wish I could say I’ve had a growth spurt since then.
Ok. Work on it, kids. On stage in 5. We’ll run it there.
My taffeta whooshed as I walked and scraped against itself making the whole saunter across stage more arduous. High collar. Apron. Curley’s new wig. I stepped up to the false front of “my house,” a doorway and window framed in on rollers, and it happened. Deep breath. Flowing taffeta. Stage lights burned like the sun, as Curley sang welcoming in the “bright golden haze on the meadow.” I was transformed. No longer the meek, sophomore homeschooler with big eyes and zero street smarts, I was Laurie from the plains of Oklahoma, smitten and sun-kissed and ready to be stage kissed for the first or tenth time.
What began to grow in me then was not the butterflies of first love but the actual wings of learning to conquer fear. Fear feels maniacal, consuming, powerful, and cruel. Like it’s coming for you from the back of the auditorium the second you miss a line or sing off-key. But this was that step through the unknown portal to find the key has been there all along and that the secret garden of independence and creativity is meant to be discovered and delighted in. It’s Dorothy’s red slippers. She had their power all along and just needed to learn to wield it.
So he leaned and I tip toed five times per show for eight performances. And my dad sat in the pit for each one. Don’t worry, I’d say to him.
Lip to lip but no lightning on almost the same spot on the stage that I lost that gauze the year before. But I didn’t mind. I loved Oklahoma. I knew that the football players would holler and misstep through the square dance and that my wedding dress cost $4 at a garage sale near the school, but there in that spot I wasn’t afraid. I knew how it ended. All would be all right, just like the Director promised. And every night I’d sing, “Oh what a beautiful morning,” and it surely was.